The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter ★★★★

Amazon Prime Video (Rental)


A titanic battle between Good and Evil plays out in Depression-Era, bayou-set psychodrama/horror The Night of the Hunter, character actor Charles Laughton's unsubtle but brilliant sole directorial credit (the film was a commercial and critical failure at the time of release, which put Laughton off directing again, unfortunately).

The first hour of the film in particular is stunning, portraying a child's-eye view of pure evil. Robert Mitchum's performance as Preacher Harry Powell is surely the finest of his career, playing a serial killer with a pathological hatred of women. Mitchum is genuinely unsettling, switching on a dime between suave, charming Southern gentleman and relentless, sinister, almost supernatural tormentor. He is a monster, a bully, a domestic abuser, a sexually repressed coward who cloaks himself in the word of God to cover up his multitude of sins. It is a truly unforgettable role, and one even the famously laconic Mitchum would later express pride in.

Also unforgettable is the way that the film is shot (the cinematographer was Stanley Cortez, who I believe was also cinematographer on Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons): starkly contrasting black and white photography with wonderful use of chiaroscuro lighting, many of the scenes have a painterly quality reminiscent of the silent-era classics (in particular the work of the German Expressionists), whilst other scenes play out as visceral, tension-filled horror. The use of light and shadow is masterful- even something simple such as Powell appearing over the top of a hill feels almost apocalyptic, the fake preacher wreathed in darkness. And, of course, there is the famous shot of Willa (Shelley Winters) in her watery grave, her throat cut, floating wraith-like amongst the weeds. There are lots of American films from this era that try to emulate this sort of style, but none of them (except perhaps 1962's Carnival of Souls) come close to the eerie beauty and sweltering, close to hysterical atmosphere of The Night of the Hunter. The look and feel of the film perfectly compliments the Biblical, Good vs. Evil subtext.

Unfortunately, the final half-hour feels a bit overcooked. Silent-era legend Lillian Gish (coaxed out of semi-retirement for this film) shows up as the slightly-too-literal embodiment of Good (kind, tolerant, brave), however her inevitable showdown with Powell I found to be very anticlimactic, with Good triumphing a little too easily (although there is something quite thrilling about a film from this era which refuses to try and condone or justify the behaviour of the villainous man, and which also ensures that his eventual defeat is at the hands of women and children). Furthermore, the introduction of Gish's character, along with a whole host of other new characters, badly hurts the films pacing and tonal consistency, with the result that the intensity and urgency of the first hour largely dissipates as the film takes turns which are not as interesting (the focus on Cooper's teenage adopted daughter) or seem to come out of nowhere (the lynch mob which forms following Powell's arrest). That said, there are still great moments to be found here- for example, Cooper and Powell's competing versions of the hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms is utterly spellbinding, and a considerably better portrayal of their Biblical battle for the soul than the physical violence that will shortly follow.

With Evil defeated, the film settles on a somewhat pat ending, emphasising the importance of religious faith and the resilience of children. This convenient, happy, pro-religious ending is somewhat at odds with much of the film that came before it, which has so many striking, dark, complex elements: little John Harper (Billy Chapin) witnessing his abuser's arrest toward the end of the film, but unexpectedly breaking down when seeing the parallels with the arrest of his own father; down-and-out "Uncle" Birdie (James Gleason), trying to be there to support the children but failing to control his own demons and so letting them down when they need him the most; the brilliantly named Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden), an apparently mild-mannered older lady whose religious fervour leads her to head the lynch mob by the film's end; an uncredited Paul Bryar, who briefly appears as a hangman struggling to reconcile his faith and his job.

Despite my reservations about the film's final third, The Night of the Hunter is one that will absolutely stick with me: powerful, haunting and, unusually for an older horror film, genuinely quite scary, the strong elements more than outweigh the weaker parts.

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